Eye Level. An essential perspective tip for artists

When you’re out walking in the street, you can practise seeing some super important principles about your eye level and how that affects what you’re seeing. It’s useful training for your eye whether you are drawing landscapes, objects or figures. 

This series is about ways to get extra practice in for your artist’s eye even when you’re busy doing other stuff, like walking down the street or having breakfast. And you’ve got to keep practising training your eye every chance you get. 

Last time we learned a bit about 1, 2 and 3 point perspective and what those terms really mean, and how we can start to practise seeing those principles while just walking down the street or having breakfast. This time, we are going to talk about another super interesting principle, the eye level or horizon line. 

We’re going to start with some stuff you may have heard before but not yet practised seeing during daily life. Then we’ll move to some stuff that I don’t see explained much and which I always found super confusing. 

Eye level & Perspective

So for this part, I need to help of my teaching assistant Maggie. I’ve set the camera up at my eye level, so the camera is roughly seeing what I would be seeing if I were standing here. I’m going to walk away from the camera. So here’s my eye line when I’m far away. It’s roughly at the level of the horizon too, but we can’t see the horizon because of all this stuff in the way. As I walk towards the camera, my eyes stay at that level.

Things that are below that level, like my feet, move further from that line as I get closer to the camera, so I get bigger. And Maggie is shorter so her eyes are below the level of the camera, so they’re below the horizon and move up further from it as we get closer.

This time, I set the camera down low. Now we are seeing the dog eye level. My eyes are above Maggie’s eye level so they are above the horizon line now. We are far from the camera, so my eyes aren’t too far from the horizon line, but as we move to the camera, they move further away from it. Maggie’s eyes are staying on that line.

Here it’s back at my eye level and we are going up a hill, so my eye level moves up above the horizon line, because we are moving up and my eyes go above my eye level. So next time your friend is walking towards you, or you throw a frisbee for a dog and they run back, notice how their eyes are moving relative to the horizon line.

Those vanishing points

Remember when we looked at this street and noticed how all the lines, because they are pretty parallel, all end up at the same vanishing point? It was pretty much on the horizon line. Then we looked at these cereal boxes, and noticed they had different vanishing points because they weren’t parallel. They were pointing in different directions. But look, the vanishing points are still on the same line, that’s the eye level line, or in this case, the level of the camera. That’s awesome.

Horizon or eye level?

I think it can be confusing to talk about the horizon line this way sometimes. You might have all sorts of things in the way stopping you seeing the proper horizon line, like some buildings, or just walls if you’re inside. But if you went around that wall with some masking tape at your eye level like a crazy person, that would be at the same level as the horizon.

But wait a minute…

Ok so up until here, I’m feeling good, even a bit smug. I understand perspective, I’m walking around town, having breakfast and getting better and better at seeing it all the time, no big deal.

But wait! What’s this?! I open the lid of this box. Its lines are not on the horizon line any more!

This is the thing that I think often isn’t explained and I found really confusing. It’s all very neat when everything goes to a point on the horizon, but here’s the big thing – it’s only stuff that is parallel to the ground! If something tilts so that it is not parallel to the ground, the vanishing points could be above or below the horizon.

This feels like total chaos. But it’s ok. The point it goes to will be directly above or below where the vanishing point was when it was parallel to the ground. So it’s just moving straight up or straight down. That doesn’t feel too bad.

Look at a brick wall

Rows of bricks are usually parallel to the ground. The lines of the bricks that are below your eye level will be angled upwards, the ones at your eye level will be straight across, and the ones above your eye level will be angled downwards towards the eye level.

Look at a lamppost

This series is really an elaborate ruse designed to get people to think you have gone bonkers. I’m going to ask you look at a lamppost next time you pass one. Imagine there are lines going around it. Below your eye level they’ll be curving upwards. At your eye level, the line will be straight. And above, it’ll curve the other way.

That’s really about being perpendicular to your eyes, rather than necessarily being at eye level. Even if it was above eye level, but was tilted so it was perpendicular to your eyes, you’d still see the curves this way. 

Look at your forearm

This is a useful thing to look for when you’re drawing people. If you imagine lines around your own forearm, and hold it in front of you, you can see where your forearm is perpendicular to your eyes, the contour lines around it are straight, but they curve one way above that point and the other below it. We’ll look at this more in a future article, but for now it’s worth looking at lampposts, because if you can hint at these contours when you draw people, it’ll add a lot to the drawing.

An ever continuous power of observation

So to end I wanted to emphasise that it’s worth noticing these sorts of things during daily life with a quote from John Singer Sargent.

“Cultivate an ever continuous power of observation. Wherever you are, be always ready to make slight notes of postures, groups and incidents. Store up in the mind… a continuous stream of observations from which to make selections later.”

He knew what he was talking about, what an amazing artist. So I’m going to make more of these, and I think the next one will be about noticing different types of light and shadow while you’re out and about.

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